WASHINGTON -- Abraham Lincoln, as usual, put it best. Even in the face of impending civil war, he described the ties that bound Americans as "the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land. . . ."
At no other time do these "mystic chords of memory" resonate more fully than on Memorial Day.
But as the demographic makeup of America changes from a population that traces its descent to Europe to those whose roots are in Africa, Asia and the Hispanic world, nativist fears are expressed that America is being pushed toward a Balkanized society. Do these new Americans hear Lincoln's mystic chords?
With the exception of the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, no American civic festival has a longer history than Memorial Day. Honoring the dead had been a practice of many civilizations. The Greek and Romans decorated the graves of loved ones with garlands of flowers. Among the Chinese, the Festival of the Tombs has long been an occasion for remembering one's ancestors and visiting cemeteries.
Firsts are always difficult to establish, especially with Memorial Day, which had its origins in numerous spontaneous and widely separated individual acts of commemoration. But by joint congressional resolution, in 1966, the village of Waterloo in upstate New York was designated as the site of the first Memorial Day.
In 1866, a local druggist, Henry C. Welles, is credited with suggesting a tribute to the neighbors who lost their lives in the Civil War, which had ended the year before, and the idea was endorsed by veteran, civic and fraternal groups.
On May 5, 1866, shops closed, flags were lowered to half-staff and the black draperies of mourning were mixed with evergreen boughs. Waterloo's residents marched out to the area's three cemeteries to remember the local men who had died in the war by decorating their graves with flowers. Patriotic speeches in which the fallen were extolled closed out the ceremonies.
The observance was repeated on May 5, 1867. But in 1868 it was marked on May 30 in accordance with national Decoration Day ceremonies sponsored by the Union veterans' group, the Grand Army of the Republic. Memorial Day became an instant national tradition and within a year, 31 states had established the holiday.
Other communities, especially in the South, challenge Waterloo's claim to have originated the custom of decorating the graves of the Civil War dead. Columbus, Miss., is Waterloo's major rival. On April 25, 1866, a former Confederate chaplain is said to have accompanied a group of women to Friendship Cemetery where they placed flowers on the resting place of both Confederate and Union casualties of the bloody Battle of Shiloh.
Other observances supposedly took place within weeks of the end of the war. For example, on May 30, 1865, black schoolchildren in Charleston, S.C., strewed flowers over the trenches that were the burial places of several hundred black Union soldiers killed in an assault on the town.
The blues and grays
The impartial gesture of the women of Columbus who placed flowers on the graves of Union soldiers was hailed in the North as a symbol of national reconciliation. It became standard in both North and South to include the former enemy in Memorial Day observances. In New York City, the Richmond grays traditionally marched along Fifth Avenue amidst the federal blue.
Over the years, the pattern for Memorial Day was established and remained almost unchanged until the suburbanization after World War II loosened community ties: Solemn memorial services followed by the decorating of graves in the national cemeteries and then parades, speeches, athletic events and picnics.
In recent years, however, Memorial Day has almost lost its significance. Rather than commemorating the nation's war dead, marks the first day of summer. The biggest event of the day is not the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, but the Indianapolis 500. Memorial Day is a day for sales. Shopping JTC centers and malls are crowded as Americans celebrate their true religion -- shopping.
Yet, most Americans, even those who come from a different tradition, have a grasp of the meaning of Memorial Day. Lincoln's "mystic chords of memory" may not tug at their imaginations with the same intensity as they do those of older Americans and the facts are often muddled. But the chords are clearly heard. Most immigrants to the United States arrive committed to American values. In fact, this is part of what attracted them here in the first place.
Life in America and its institutions have always shaped immigrants, not the other way around. Many of the new Americans know little of the nation's past -- Lincoln's "patriot grave" means nothing to someone from the Andean highlands of Bolivia -- but like those who came before them they wish their children to become part of its future. As we observe another Memorial Day, there is no reason to abandon hope that this process will continue. The face of America may be changing but belief in its values still binds us.
Nathan Miller is author of the recently published "Star-Spangled Men."
Pub Date: 5/25/98